Penelas discusses mental illness at Chamber meeting

Government By David Snelling, Reporter Thursday, February 20, 2020

Former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas left political office in 2004 with one regret: He never shared the ordeal of coping with his younger brother’s mental illness.
Penelas described the story of his family’s struggle during a Feb. 12 Miami Lakes Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Shula’s Hotel and Golf Club, when he was the guest speaker.
Luncheon guests may have assumed Penelas was going to talk about politics; after all, he’s trying to get his old job back.
But he said he has come to realize how discussing Pedro Penelas’ 40-year struggle could have raised awareness about mental health.
It is an issue that is stigmatized, not often openly discussed and yet is experienced by many families.
Penelas said his brother’s life descended in a tailspin of substance abuse, homelessness, arrest and stays in institutions that ended with his death last year.
“I waited too long to share my story, especially during my years as a public servant,” said Penelas, who was county mayor from 1996-2004 and a county commissioner for six years. “I regret not sharing my story sooner.”
Calling mental illness “the next major crisis in our community,” Penelas said he witnessed his parents’ torment while they cared for his brother.
And when his parents died, Penelas said Pedro became his responsibility.
When his brother’s aggression worsened, Penelas said his wife, Lilliam, feared for the safety of their three children.
“We couldn’t even invite Pedro to family gatherings and birthdays,” Penelas said. “It was that bad.”
One out of five adults in the U.S. suffers from mental illness, according to Penelas.
He said in Florida, 841,000 people have severe mental health conditions; 180,000 are children.
“Miami-Dade County has the largest percentage of people with serve mental health illness in any urban community in the U.S.,” Penelas said, citing 2016 statistics compiled by the 11th Judicial Circuit that said an estimated nine percent of the population, or 192,000 adults, are affected by serious mental illnesses.
Penelas said a lot of tax dollars are spent on psychiatric treatment for inmates at Miami-Dade County jails.
“Jails are not the place for that much money being spent on psychiatric treatment,” he said. “The money should be diverted from jail to the community.”
Penelas also said people in crisis who are involuntarily detained under Florida’s Baker Act should be held for longer than 72 hours and that the law should be amended.
“Seventy-two hours is not enough time to provide patients and their families with the proper care they need at that particular time,” he said.
Though public funding of mental health programs was the focus of his remarks, Penelas didn’t avoid discussing politics.
Penelas is competing against seven candidates -- County Commissioners Esteban Bovo, Jr., Daniella Levine Cava, Xavier Suarez and Jean Monestime; Robert Ingram Burke; Monique Nicole and Ludmilla Domond -- to replace Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is term-limited.
Penelas leads in campaign contributions with nearly $3 million raised as of Feb. 14, according to Miami-Dade County Elections.
Traffic woes hamper the county and Penelas said he wished that the voter-approved half-penny sales tax funded expansion of Metrorail rather than bus services.
During a debate last year, Bovo said the tax didn’t generate enough money to fund most of the transportation improvement projects.
Penelas is an owner of a firm that builds affordable housing, which he said is needed along with better paying jobs.
“It’s difficult for many people to make ends meet,” said Penelas. “And affordable housing is difficult to find.”
Miami Lakes Councilman Josh Dieguez attended the luncheon and said he could relate to Penelas’ experience with mental illness because a relative had a bipolar disorder.
“Mr. Penelas is making this a priority in his campaign and raising awareness of an important, yet deliberately ignored challenge in Miami-Dade,” Dieguez said.
“I look forward to working with him on this issue, among others, if he’s elected.”

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